Prince Nagaya: The life of a nobleman of the Nara Period

Depiction of Prince Nagaya’s mansion

Prince Nagaya.

Mokkan with a drawing of a courtier (Prince Nagaya?) from Prince Nagaya’s residence

Prince Nagaya (長屋王 Nagaya-no-ōkimi or Nagaya-ō) (684 – 20 March 729) was the grandson of Emperor Temmu and a politician of the Nara period.

His father was Prince Takechi and his mother Princess Minabe (a daughter of Emperor Tenji and Empress Gemmei‘s sister). He married Princess Kibi (his cousin, a daughter of Empress Gemmei and Empress Genshō‘s sister). It is a historically known fact that the mother, elder brother, and elder sister of his wife Princess Kibi, also granddaughter of Emperor Temmu, all occupied the throne.

Because of his impeccable royal pedigree in the Imperial family, he was a powerful personality in 8th century politics. Prince Nagaya held the post of Sadaijin (Minister of the Left, the highest regularly-held governmental post and roughly the equivalent to the modern-day prime minister) and led the government.

The Fujiwara clan was the most powerful rival clan of Nagaya. Fujiwara no Fuhito, the leader of the house, had been the most powerful courtier in the court in those days when this country was reigned by Empress Genshō, a cousin of Nagaya’s. After Fuhito’s death in 720, he seized complete power in the court. This power shift was the source of later conflicts between him and Fuhito’s four sons (Muchimaro, Fusasaki, Maro and Umakai) in the reign of Emperor Shōmu.

In 729, Fuhito’s four sons accused and charged Prince Nagaya with the false crime of plotting a rebellion. As a result of the conspiracy of the Fujiwara Family who supported Emperor Shomu, Prince Nagaya was forced to kill himself in the same year. His wife, Princess Kibi, and his children were killed at the same time. After his death, it became clear that he was framed in a plot by the Fujiwara family, who sought to seize power. Thereafter, the life of Prince Nagaya’s is often recounted as a tale of tragedy.

A nobleman’s life

While Prince Nagaya had lived, a huge residence, including mansion and estate, had been allocated to him near the Imperial palace in a very good part of Heijō-kyō, the capital city during most of the Nara period, from 710–40 and again from 745–84.

The excavated site, stretching over 30,000 square meters of land, was a large-sized plot and was in a prime location – adjacent to the southeastern corner of the Heijo Palace and in the vicinity are other mansions occupied by historically known elite aristocrats. Excavations of the area yielded the finds of a large number of roof tiles, including decorated edge-roof tiles. The use of roof tiles was generally restricted to palaces and temples in the Heijo Capital and were very rarely to be found in residences.

Example of roof tile excavated from the Prince Nagaya’s residential grounds

Other artefacts discovered included pottery: Sue pottery (fired with an oxidizing flame at higher than 1,000 degrees centigrade) and Haji pottery (fired with a reducing flame at lower than 1,000 degrees for daily use).

Samples of everyday pottery excavated from the Nagaya site

Also among the artefacts were some Nara Three Colored Ceramics and Tang Three Colored Ceramics, evidence of the commerce and trading activities of the Silk Road and the influence of Tang Dynasty China at the time.   Excavated in large quantities from many Japanese sites related to religious rituals, Nara three-color ware, known for its wide variety of forms and functions, was modeled on the Tang tri-color mortuary articles for burial with the dead. Imported Tang tricolor pottery generally portrayed the luxurious social life of the Tang Dynasty courtiers during its peak, while local Nara tricolor pottery(believed to have been locally produced in large kilns near the capital by a government authorized bureau because of the uniformly similar method of production of pieces found all over Japan) hints of the quarter from which Nara Japan drew its inspiration for its newly imported aesthetic values (which attached great importance to the flamboyance and elegance of the attires and the plumpness of ladies) and sancai techniques.  The Nara potteries were highly prized as they were the first Japanese pottery to be using man-made glazes, and together with the Tang tricolor ones, the pottery were admired for their fine quality and beauty.

Excavated Nara tricolored pottery shards

Excavations on Prince Nagaya’s property covering 60,000 square metres, uncovered about 250 structures (without foundation stones), fifty wells, alleys, ditches and fences. The mansion was divided by fences into specialized functional spaces such as private residence, ritual areas, storage spaces and government working spaces.

Copper mirror and coins

Some artifacts recovered from the site included copper mirrors and coins. Other ritual artifacts included human-shaped wooden figurines and boat shaped objects thought to have been used for magical or ritual purposes. A cypress fan, crown made of lacquer and a wooden shoe were also found. Other interesting finds included the oldest votive tablet ever found of a horse, and as well as a rare landscape painting with a pavilion on a wooden board.

Landscaped drawing on wooden board

The latter landscape aesthetics from the painting on the wooden board have been reconstructed or replicated based on the actual excavated remnants of the ancient pond on the south of the site. Excavators had discovered a 50 m-long zigzag pond that had been artificially constructed with stones. The pond has now been designated as “a historic site of special significance”. Prince Nagaya was also known to have kept cranes as pets. Drawings on excavated wooden boards illustrate the lavish landscaped setting in which the prince lived. The excavated artificial pond indicated the courtly aesthetics of the time and confirmed the luxurious lifestyle of the aristocrat of the Nara Period.

Depiction of Prince Nagaya and his family at leisure

At the eastern end of the mansion was a large garbage ditch out of which 50,000 wooden tablets with inscriptions (these are referred to as Prince Nagaya’s Mansion Wooden Tablets). These were exciting discoveries because there are very few sites in Heijo-kyo (the Capital Nara) that can be identified by their residents. From the inscriptions of the excavated strips of wood, scholars were able to identify and confirm that Prince Nagaya and his wife, Princess Kibi lived in the excavated mansion.

In ancient times paper was expensive, so strips of wood, or wooden writing tablets, were used for daily recordings and communications. Tens of thousands of tablets excavated from Prince Nagaya’s site were used for a variety of needs and purposes, including the recording of the prince’s domestic finances as well as serving as shipping tags attached to goods transported to his residence. Scholars learned a great deal from the wooden tablets used for transactions within Prince Nagaya’s household organization, territory which was Prince’s economic basis and daily life.

He and his wife Princess Kibi had estates, called mita or misono, in and around Yamato Province (modern Nara Prefecture). From these estates, rice, vegetables and other goods were transported to their residence. Records suggest that these estates were not only provided by the government according to one’s position but also owned privately at a time when the entire land was, in theory, owned by the state.

Many of these estates were in the southern part of the Nara Basin, where previous capitals were located. But some of them were located in the provinces around Yamato Province, including Kawachi (modern Osaka Prefecture) and Yamashiro (modern Kyoto Prefecture). The following table shows some of their estates as identified by the excavated wooden tablets used as shipping tags.

Estates Suppsed Location Transported Goods
Saho Nara-shi [Nara-ken] ginger etc.
Kataoka Oji-cho and Kashiba-shi [Nara-ken] lotus, turnip etc.
Kikami Asuka-mura [Nara-ken] or Koryo-cho [Nara-ken] (?) glutinous rice, bamboo etc.
Miminashi Kashihara-shi [Nara-ken] Japanese parsley etc.
Oba Moriguchi-shi [Osaka-fu] or Koryo-cho [Nara-ken] (?) turnip etc.
Shibukawa Higashiosaka-shi [Osaka-fu] (?) rice etc.
Yamashiro Kyoto-fu or Minami-Kawachi-gun [Osaka-fu] (?) Japanese radish, vegetables etc.

Moreover, he accepted various goods including rice, salt and seafood not only from his estates but also from more remote provinces such as Ohmi (Shiga Prefecture), Echizen (Fukui Prefecture), Suoh (Yamaguchi Prefecture), and Sanuki (Kagawa Prefecture). It is supposed that these goods were provisions from the government. Therefore, the life of Prince Nagaya was based on the relationships he had with the wide areas outside the capital.

Prince Nagaya owned a himuro (ice storehouse) in Tsuge (Tenri-shi, Tsuge-mura), 10 kilometers southeast of Nara. Ice, stored in the himuro in winter, was delivered to his residence almost every day in summer. It is speculated that they used ice for drinking sake “on the rocks.” Given the lack of refrigeration in those days, ice was precious for relieving the heat of summer and the fact that he owned a private icehouse is an indication of considerable household luxury.

It is thought that with the resources that he had amassed, Prince Nagaya was in the habit of entertaining his guests in a lavish manner.

Depiction of how Prince Nagaya is thought to have entertained his guests

A wooden writing tablet recovered from Prince Nagaya’s mansion, owned by the Nara National Cultural Properties Research Institute.

References and Sources:

Everyday life of a nobleman in the 8th century by Satomi Nishimura, Faculty of Letters, Nara Women’s University

History of Oriental Ceramics: The Evolution of Japanese Ceramics by KOBAYASHI, Hitoshi (The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka)

Tang Tricolor Pottery (Cultural China)

Nara Tricolor Small Pot (The Museum of Wayo Women’s University)

平城京 長屋王邸宅と木簡 奈良国立文化財研究所 The Site of Prince Nagaya’s Mansion in the Heijo Capital and Wooden Tablets (Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties)

Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures by William Farris pp. 224-229

The Cambridge History of Japan

Resource usage in the house of Prince Nagaya

Images and photos are the property of Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties

Further reading:

Kiley, Cornelius J.: Wooden tags and noble houses: the household(s) of Prince Nagaya as revealed by mokkan [Abstracts of AAS’ Session 48. STICKS, STONES, POTS AND PLOTS: ARCHEOLOGICAL INSIGHTS INTO JAPANESE HISTORY]

“During the seventh and eighth centuries, wooden slips were used for a wide range of documentary purposes that went far beyond mere labeling. Any official message or memo that did not require long archival preservation could be routinely written on a small strip of wood. It might be discarded once the information had reached its destination, but might also be retained for a time as an administrative record. The recent discovery of about forty thousand mokkan dating from 711 to 716 at the site of the palace of Prince Nagaya (684-729), who was eventually eliminated in the course of a dynastic struggle, has provided much new information about how the household chanceries of Nara period grandees operated. It is now clear that Prince Nagaya’s menage had a compound structure, including at least two, and possibly three, separate but interlocking chanceries, one for Prince Nagaya himself and a higher level one for the senior ascendant imperial family member living there, probably Princess of the Blood Hidaka, who became Empress Gensho in 715. Some mokkan point to a third chancery, that of his wife, Princess of the Blood Kibi. In this case, mokkan have provided new information about the matriarchal elements of kinship and inheritance among ancient Japanese nobility.”

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